Mass shootings have become so endemic to American life that we have begun to categorize them in ever more arcane ways to tell them apart.
The shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in late 2017, which killed some 26 people, were instantly dubbed the “worst mass shooting in a house of worship in American history.” Last weekend’s horrific slaughter at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, was, according to ABC News, “the fourth shooting of the deadliest 12 across America that took place in Texas.”
At this appalling rate, within a couple of years we’ll hear about “the worst mass shooting committed by a left-handed Beatles fan who prefers Burger King to McDonald’s.”
What makes mass shootings so horrifying is their randomness; the sickening notion that you can wind up dead, killed by a stranger, simply because you remembered you had to run some errands at the local big box store one Saturday morning. Yet mass killings remain only a tiny stone in the vast mosaic of violence in American life.
Violence in America tends to be highly concentrated. According to data made available through the Crime Research Prevention Center, in 2014, fully 54% of U.S. counties suffered no murders. More than half of murders — 51% — occurred in just 2% of U.S. counties. Maps prepared by the center also show that even within counties, killings are concentrated. In Washington, D.C., almost all murders occur east of Rock Creek Park, which cleaves the city. There are some years when the western half of the town experiences no homicides at all.
The vast majority of murders in America aren’t the horrific spectacles of El Paso and Dayton, Ohio; they’re the routine, pointless slaughter — often over minuscule seeming “beefs” — that occur in troubled neighborhoods in big cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country. They’re the husbands who kill their wives and the drug dealers who kill their competitors.
The United States is a violent country. How violent? So violent that, even if you magically removed every gun murder in the United States, we would still have a higher murder rate than our industrialized counterparts. America’s murder rate, in other words, is about much more than its permissive gun laws.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 14,542 gun homicides in the United States last year, a rate of 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people. In the same year, there were 19,510 total homicides for a total homicide rate of 6 deaths per 100,000. So non-gun homicides comprised approximately 5,000 American murders last year, or about 1.5 deaths per 100,000.
At 1.5 homicides per 100,000 — that is, every non-gun murder committed in the United States — the United States would still have a higher murder rate than more than 70 other countries, according to United Nations data.
Some of these far safer countries are first-world democracies: the United Kingdom (1.2), Denmark, (1.20), Sweden (1.10), Taiwan (0.82), South Korea (0.6), Switzerland (0.5) and Japan (0.2). But Burkina Faso (1.3), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.2), the United Arab Emirates (0.5) and Oman (0.5) all have lower murder rates than America’s non-gun homicide rate, too.
It’s a safe bet that were every Japanese citizen in ultra-safe Japan issued a firearm, Japan would still have a much lower murder rate than the United States. Indeed, pacific Switzerland already has a very high gun ownership rate and few restrictions on purchasing guns — and a very low murder rate.
America’s persistent violence is one of the most unsettling things about life here. And it’s about much more than guns.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.